Blog from April, 2013

How many students record classes already via OneNote, smartphone, or some other device?  And then use those recordings for review?  If you comment, please include how it's helped you.

Our OCE contract has come to an end and we're replacing the old machines with new, state-of-the-art equipment from Xerox.  Instead of a one-size-fits-all method, we'll be installing copier/printer/scanners that are appropriate for the needs of the different areas based on historical duty cycles.  We're very excited to be getting new equipment more appropriate for the specific areas.  In spaces where consolidating is an option, we'll replace aging copiers and printers with reliable, new devices capable of servicing Faculty/Staff needs better.

Email Upgrade?

A few years ago we migrated student email hosting to Microsoft's Live.edu service.  Microsoft offers this service for free, and offers considerably more storage than we can afford to provide.  As with all technology related things, the time has come to upgrade the student email service.  Microsoft would like to migrate all student email accounts to their O365 service.  On September 30, 2013 they will shutdown the existing Live.edu service.  Hence, we must make a change.  The question arises as to what change to make?

A little history about the current setup:

Although our onsite Faculty/Staff email host and the students Live.edu host were supposed to operate as one organization, this promise has never been realized.  Having the student email and the F/S email separate has caused some issues over the years.

  • Microsoft likes to make changes to Live.edu and not tell us about it.  Their change then breaks things for our students. 
  • Administering Live.edu has been a large effort for IT.  Lots of custom scripting has been required. 
  • We have been unable to have free/busy calendar sharing with Live.edu, nor the ability to delegate employee mailbox responsibilities to students.
  • When students move to employee status or employees take classes, they wind up with two email boxes.  This has led to some confusion. 
  • Microsoft has limited us to sending to 25 students per email, and certain size limitations that we have no control over.

The pluses have been:

  • Students get 15 GB of storage (although no one is using more than 2 GB currently)
  • They were able to keep their @vikings address for life (very few graduates are still using their vikings address)
  • They also received a fair amount of storage from Microsoft (over 10 GB at last count).

There are currently three options under consideration to replace the current setup.  Other options have been discarded as impractical. As we look for a new solution, we of course what to try to learn from our past experiences, and make a choice that will hopefully eliminate most of the issues we have experienced in the past.  Our goal is to make this transition as painless as possible for everyone, especially the students.  Microsoft is not making this easy.  We also want to be functioning as one mail organization again. Not two different ones loosely associated.  So, since we want to be one organization again, that precludes us moving the students to Google.  We have also examined and dismissed the thought of just not offering student email.  So, that leaves:

Option 1: bring student email back into our onsite employee email host:

Advantages:

  1. We are one organization again.
  2. We have complete control of our services, servers, policies, etc.
  3. We know the tools to use to administer our onsite setup.
  4. This is a nice simple setup.

Disadvantages:

  1. We might need an additional server to handle the load (probably about $10,000-12,000)
  2. We will incur the costs to keep the data backed up. Too many options to price reliably.
  3. Amortization costs would be estimated at around $10,000 (for both student and employee servers, storage, and software)
  4. Disaster recover is our responsibility. 
  5. We have to continue to deal with SPAM filtering and keeping ourselves off of email blocklists (disallows us to send email to various places).
  6. Student email storage would be limited to under 3 GB.

Option 2a: move student email to the new Office 365 and federate with onsite Employee email:

Real Advantages:

  1. We do not incur the costs of additional servers, storage, backups on site.
  2. Better disaster recovery.
  3. Calendar & Free Busy sharing, and delegation should work between the Employee email system and the student email system (presuming federation works as advertised).

Theoretical Advantages:

These are only an advantage if the students utilize theses services fully (which to date most have not),  Most of these services are available from a multitude of companies on the Internet.

  1. Students get 25 GB of email storage (I doubt they care based upon Live.edu statistics)
  2. Students get access to SharePoint for collaboration, and 7 GB of SkyDrive Pro storage (easily accessible from Windows desktops only) 
  3. They get access to Microsoft Lync/Skype (ability to do large virtual conferences, presence info, and messaging). 

Disadvantages:

  1. A fair amount of faith in Microsoft Federation is required for us to presume this will inter-operate with the employee email system as advertised by Microsoft.
  2. Administrative labor required to maintain the federated setup will be considerable.
  3. It must be a complex setup: Initial estimates for consultants to do the federation start at about $15,000 - $20,000 (they expect it will take 100 hours give or take).
  4. This will require additional servers to allow for high availability.  Probably only $5,000 or so.

Option 2b: move all email to Office 365 (Employees included)

Real Advantages:

  1. We get out of the email hosting business, and save management and amortization costs.
  2. Employees & students are truly one organization again.
  3. No federation required.
  4. Administrative labor required to maintain would be significantly decreased.
  5. Microsoft handles all SPAM issues, and keeps us off blocklists
  6. Employees get 25 GB of storage for their mailboxes.

Disadvantages:

  1. Loss of control of Employee email service to an unresponsive outside organization.
  2. Reliance on outside tech support which is terrible.
  3. Troubleshooting cloud services (O365) requires more technical expertise than troubleshooting a local mail system.
  4. Advantages only available after employee mailboxes are moved to Office 365.  This might not be a quick process.
  5. (possible) Microsoft might not continue to offer it for free.
  6. We would need to switch to Cisco for VoiceMail, or incur $20,000 in annual costs to have voicemail hosted in the cloud.  Switching to Cisco would be costly up front ($25,000) for the software, plus implementation costs.  This would also require re-training the campus.

 

My thoughts on all this are as follows:

Option 2a (federation) is my least preferred of all the options.  Having two mail organizations has not been a good experience in the past, and I do not really expect it to be a good experience in the future.  I recommend we bring the student email back onsite. This is the cleanest and cheapest route.  Regardless of which direction we choose, Microsoft is going to make this a confusing transition for our current students.  We are still exploring our options to make things less confusing, but the outlook is not good.  Let me know your thoughts and/or questions on these options.  We will need to make a decision very soon, so we can communicate our choice to students.

 

My.northpark.edu (The Portal)

Recently there has been a great deal of interest/anxiety surrounding upcoming changes to the portal (my.northpark.edu).  I am glad people are showing interest and concern.  Let me start by explaining where this all started, and end up with where I see it going.

In late March of 2010 we purchased Datatel’s portal product.  The initial launch of the portal was scheduled for March of 2011.  The powers that be (Allyson, Jon, myself) agreed to delay the launch until May 16 to allow for more testing, an upgrade to the latest software, and to coincide with the switch to Moodle.   UMC was in charge of content/look & feel for the Portal and associated mobile app.  IT was in charge of the underlying technology, and ODL and their online students were the early adopters, and main feedback path.

Things did not go as planned.  UMC did not do much with the content, and did nothing with the mobile app.  The early adopters ran into issues and just quit using the Portal, without communicating the issues to IT.  IT was not aware of significant issues until two weeks before the semester started.  IT was unable to resolve the issues in the given time frame, and in all honesty, we have still not been able to resolve many of the issues.

In December of 2011, I outlined the major technical issues facing the portal, and the potential outlook for the portal.  Most of the issues we were facing then, still exist today.  Over the last twelve months, I have spent considerable time and budget resources in an attempt to resolve the issues.  I have made extensive use of external consultants for advice and troubleshooting.   Towards the end of 2012 a few things became painfully obvious. 

  1. The portal would never work as envisioned.
  2. SharePoint, which the portal runs on, was not a good fit for an educational institution.
  3. Datatel themselves were not utilizing the portal for their latest and greatest features.  No significant improvements are planned in the next 12 – 18 months.
  4. The campus did not seem to have an interest in working through the organizational issues that would be required to utilize the features of the portal that did work.
  5. I could not continue to allocate my time and IT budgetary resources to something that seemed impossible to fix.

By late 2012 the status stood as follows:

  1. We were not using the portal for announcements.
  2. We were not using the portal for registration alerts, or catalog search, or registration.
  3. We were not using the portal for displaying Moodle classes, and just used a static link to Moodle.
  4. We had moved team sites to “sharepoint generic” outside of the Datatel portal.   In an attempt to stabilize them.
  5. We had removed the discussion boards in an attempt to stabilize the portal.
  6. Searching and people directories were not working.
  7. The solution to student login issues had broken other features.
  8. Our final attempt to have the consultants prepare the next release of Sharepoint for testing Failed.
  9. Datatel had replaced their mobile app with one that did not require the Portal.
  10. Datatel had replaced the catalog search, and registration aspects with a new product called Student Planning.  Student Planning is an extra cost, and does not utilize the Portal. 

So, what remained?

  1. A web part to display the weather.
  2. WebAdvisor pages that have a more modern graphical look.  The underlying functionality is the same as going directly to the normal webadvisor pages.
  3. A Top level menu structure that people like and use heavily.
  4. Some RSS feeds.
  5. An unread email part (that does not always work for students), and my calendar (with no Moodle information).

When analyzing all of the my.northpark.edu issues and attempting to discern a path forward, the question of which portal to utilize arose?  Student Services had implemented OrgSync.  Orgsync is a “Campus Engagement Network.  Its functionality overlaps much of what my.northpark.edu does, and is easier to use.  Unfortunately, we would not be able to easily develop a structure to handle the “top menus” from my.northpark.edu.  Since we switched my.northpark.edu to just present a static link to Moodle, MoodleRooms also became a portal.  ODL has indicated they would prefer to use the Moodleroom’s portal for their purposes.  So in essence we have three portals, four if you count the main web site.   So the question of why we were pouring all of the resources into my.northpark.edu arose.  ODL plans to use the MoodleRooms portal, and Student Services plans to continue to use OrgSync for undergraduates.  So what exactly did  we need my.northpark.edu to do?  It seemed like what was really necessary was a landing page.  A landing page is where people are directed to so they can find what they are looking for.  Sort of a page of information to provide them with directions.  This is what UMC had prior to the implementation of the Datatel Portal.

By the end of the year, we also knew that SharePoint was not required for the accreditation process.   Currently, there are only about eight team sites being utilized on Sharepoint.  So, the adoption has been very poor.  Most things that are being done in SharePoint can be done in OrgSync.  One notable exception is forms processing on SharePoint works relatively well. 

Information that significant future changes to the portal were going to happen communicated to various parties as early as last August.  Throughout the year, I have been communicating to interested parties the status and future visions for my.northpark.edu.  The status and visions have changed frequently based upon the progress and stability of the overall platform.  By early February of 2013 and after much internal IT discussion, we decided to think about what things would look like without Datatel’s portal product.

We looked at using the MoodleRooms portal to host my.northpark.edu, but in conversation with ODL and MoodleRooms decided against it.  We worked with Laurie and Orgsync on using Orgsync to host my.northpark.edu, but found its structure unsuitable for a campus portal.  We talked with Scott from UMC about branding for a new SharePoint page for my.northpark.edu, and we talked about just turning my.northpark.edu into a static web page.  Finally, we evaluated our wiki product (Confluence).

So after great thought and deliberation, I hatched a grand plan.  We would drop the Datatel portal completely, and save 25k per year, plus lots of headaches.  We would put all new team sites on Orgsync, and move the my.northpark.edu page to the SiteCore product (this is used to maintain WWW.northpark.edu by most of the campus).  UMC would assume responsibility for the new my.northpark.edu landing page in SiteCore.  Sharepoint would be kept around for existing team sites, and forms processing. 

Now, such a radical change seemed to grab some people’s attention.  So I went and spoke with the Academic Tech committee, and met with two groups of interested people.  One of the main themes that came for the two groups was that leadership and responsibility for “internal communication” on campus was sorely lacking.  People wanted many features and functions available in the portal.  However, when asked who would be willing to help work through the issues, no one stepped forward.  Aaron volunteered to talk to Nate about “internal communication” issues.  Prior to Aaron meeting with Nate, Marcia scheduled a meeting with Nate, Scott, and I to talk about my.northpark.edu and “internal communication” issues.   Prior to that meeting the Academic Technology Committee apparently sent you a memo requesting they be given authority over this matter.  Ultimately, their memo is between you and Nate, as I have confirmed with Nate that he still feels responsible for “internal communication”.

The plan going forward is as follows:

  • Phase I
    • University Marketing is leading the team to resolve what to get live by July 1.
    • This will be a simple launch, basic page with links and non-personalized information.
    • IT & UMC will handle this phase figuring out business objectives and working with Aaron and Elizabeth.
  • Phase II - After July 1, the team will be made larger to come up with a longer range plan.
    • Additional team members for Phase II will be figured out as we work through Phase I.

Additionally information:

  1. SharePoint for Team sites is not going away.  We may migrate it to the cloud at some point,  All information stored on our local Sharepoint server will be migrated to the Cloud (if that happens), so you will not lose any information.